An Experimental New Starbucks Store: Tiny, Portable, and Hyper Local

A new style of smaller, LEED-certified Starbucks may touch down near you soon. It's all part of a plan to evolve the coffee giant's business.

This week in Colorado, Starbucks opened a store unlike any before it. There are no leather chairs or free power outlets. In fact, there’s no space for the customer at all. Starbucks has reimagined the coffee hut as a “modern modular,” LEED-certified drive-thru and walk-up shop. The building was constructed in a factory and delivered from a truck, but its facade is clad in gorgeous old Wyoming snow fencing. As diminutive as the shop may be, its designer wants drivers to pass by and ask “What is that?” only to conclude that, oh, “it’s art.”

WHAT WOULD THE FLANNEL-WEARING 1990s STARBUCKS SAY?

It’s hard to remember the Folgers era, before Seattle’s grunge scene and coffee culture invaded the U.S. In retrospect, the shift seems inevitable. Coffee, popularized during the industrial revolution, just got bigger as the Internet revolution began. Today we all know that a laptop is near-useless without an Internet connection and a warm cup of caffeine by its side. Yet Starbucks’s Arthur Rubinfeld, the now president of global development but architect by trade (and Co.Design 50), remembers a different story--one where Starbucks wasn’t a trenta-sized juggernaut, but a longshot beverage company hoping to sell America on frou-frou coffee. “When I joined in ‘92, we were under 100 stores. And we had an understanding that espresso-based beverages were on trend. We knew this from the loyalty of our customer base at the time, but our category--speciality beverages--was not in itself a business driver,” Rubinfeld tells me. “At that point it was about establishing the American idea of the coffee house. Hundreds and hundreds of years old in Europe, it was mostly about community.”

The drive-thru looks bigger than the 500-square-foot building! (Courtesy Starbucks)

So that community coffee house was crafted into an archetype, the plush-chaired, dark-wooded, Starbucks that we all know today (a European clone so effective that it’s taken a bite out of Europe’s own coffee market). Yet Starbucks still had to win over America city by city in a strategic land war, so they made their way into strip malls and shopping centers, recognizing coffee as an impulsive convenience purchase to complement a trip to the grocery store or post office. Each regional strategy had to be tailored at the city level, but it always started with a convenience-based link. “Chicago is one of the early Starbucks entry points,” Rubinfeld says. “When Starbucks entered in Chicago, it was at the core of office buildings on the way into work. Then it became more ‘where you live work and play,’ and then it became the third place between home and office--the community connection point, the human interaction point that’s so critical.”

Rubinfeld left the company for a bit, and when he came back in 2008 to take his new seat, the world had changed. No one would call Starbucks a risky business model anymore, nor would they dare finger coffee as a fad. 17% of U.S. adults were consuming a gourmet coffee concoction on a daily basis. Today, coffee’s grown bigger than soft drinks--and it has a two-digit market lead over those fizzy beverages.

BUT OTHER THINGS HAD CHANGED, TOO.

Premium coffee had become an addictive enough habit that Starbucks didn’t require the sloppy seconds of grocery stores or business complexes anymore. A frappucino alone could be worth a trip. At the same time, the local omnivore movement was taking off. Laptops no longer just browsed the Internet, they created it. Culture became about content creation and original voice. And the very definition of cool had changed. Flannel-clad rejects were out, but geeks of all types were in. Teens were wearing backpacks on two shoulders and caring about the environment.

Coming back in 2008, Rubinfeld tied all future store designs with the company’s Shared Planet Initiative, which impacted everything from Starbucks’s practices with farmers to how their stores dispose of refuse. “Once that connection to our mission statement, our soul if you will, was established, that became the go-forward design foundation for our stores, along with one additional very important element, and that is being locally relevant.” But one very big challenge remained.

“HOW DO WE DO THAT WHEN WE’RE OPENING A LOT STORES WORLDWIDE?”

This was a question that Rubinfeld posed to Starbucks’s 14 architectural offices around the world. You see, Starbucks doesn’t hire out their building design. They conceptualize all stores from within. And what resulted was the greenlighting of a series of coffee shops that are absolutely stunning, highly individualized, sustainably idyllic flagships that easily challenge Apple’s best stores in terms of pure chic.

One particular flagship was built right in Seattle, using Starbucks’s reclaimed shipping containers along with prefabricated components. And while Rubinfeld admits that it’d have been cheaper just to ditch those shipping materials altogether, he liked the statement. It was experimental, green, and gorgeous. It was ostentatious and responsible at the same time.

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